"She wasn't performing like someone who was about to go to jail… She was performing like someone who cared so much about her craft that it bled seamlessly out of her"
As soon as Lauryn Hill announced last Saturday that she'd be playing a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg Tuesday night, the narrative was already written: the influential singer, fresh off being sentenced to three months in prison for tax evasion, was trying to raise some money.
The more cynical viewpoint centered on the price of admission -- $85 in advance and $100 at the door for a venue that rarely charges over $30 per event -- and seemed to bear out that notion. And the release of her latest single, the virulently indignant "Neurotic Society," which attacked the majority of the things she deemed worthy of her vitriol in rapid-fire succession, came accompanied with a note that conceded that she would never have released it had her financial and legal situation not required the action.
But even with all the distractions and the impending quarter-year jail sentence hanging over her head -- a court ordered she turn herself in to authorities by June 8 to begin her hard time -- Lauryn Hill seems to have found herself back on her feet. A new record deal with Sony for a reported seven figures will help, as will an adoring crowd who were not upset in the slightest to part with a good chunk of the week's paycheck to see one of the best female performers of the last twenty years strut her stuff.
But it still remained to be seen whether or not her reputation as a reclusive figure would bleed into a stage show that demanded dynamism, due to both the price of the ticket and her own ability to disappear from the stage for what her many fans have deemed far too long. But on Tuesday night Ms. Hill did not disappoint.
Following an hour-plus-long DJ set from A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip, who spun classics from Wu-Tang to Drake, through LL Cool J and Gang Starr, and incorporating the Jackson Five and a singalong to Al Green's "Let's Get Together," Ms. Hill took the stage backed by a ten-piece band that was contagious in its ferocity and launched immediately into a high-tempo, rock-reggae jam that included snippets of "Killing Me Softly," the Fugees cover that Ms. Hill made famous on the group's Grammy-winning 1996 sophomore album "The Score."
She rolled through tracks off another of her Grammy-smashing albums, her solo debut "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," guiding her tightly-bound yet loosely-wound band through "Everything is Everything" and "Superstar," with her rapid-fire vocals propelling the crowd into a near-constant frenzy. If this was a pure money grab to try to restore her finances, it seemed like Hill and her crew were at least dedicated to making it worthwhile.
"I've missed you too," she said to the crowd at one point in reaction to a vocalized plea, and it certainly seemed she had.
Classic tracks such as "Lost Ones" and "How Many Mics" were delivered with such venom and quick-fire vocal prowess that it almost transformed them into entirely new compositions, nearly unrecognizable from the album versions unless you were paying close attention. The latter was especially ferocious, with Hill bringing the song down to near-silence (she would exercise considerable control over her band as the evening went on, shushing and cajoling them in equal measure depending on her mood) and turning things over to her trio of backup singers, before rousing the band and the crowd into a final, multisyllabic climax. It almost seemed like the band hadn't stopped playing for a second the entire evening, save for a brief interlude in which Hill explained, "I have a little bit of a cough... But that's not gonna stop us!"
She wasn't performing like someone who was about to go to jail. She wasn't performing like someone who just needed the money. Rather, she was performing like someone who cared so much about her craft and presentation that it bled seamlessly out of her, with near-flawless transitions and an intensity that belied her famous reclusive nature. It wasn't Lauryn Hill, neo-soul rapstress. It was Lauryn Hill laying it all on the line regardless of what would, or will, come next.
The finale of "Ready Or Not" saw Hill leave the stage a little over an hour after her set started, but that wasn't going to be the end. She came back out almost immediately for a slower, groovier and more fully realized "Killing Me Softly" before transitioning into a chaotic, breakneck-paced "Neurotic Society" (which she at points slowed all the way down and dove into near-a capella moments), before breezing through full-blown covers of Bob Marley's "Jammin'" and "Could You Be Loved."
But perhaps the most touching moment came after she ended her encore with Miseducation's "Doo Wop." As many in the crowd streamed for the exits, Hill re-emerged with four of her six children in tow and handed each of them the microphone, allowing them to rap as her drummer and the crowd urged them onward. The sight of five-year-old Sarah high-fiving the front row as the band played the audience out was a poignant reminder: though Lauryn Hill may be gone for a little while, the audience will always be here for her when she comes back. And if she keeps submitting sets like last night -- with the final run time touching two hours -- no amount of money will keep her shows from selling out.